Friday, January 29, 2010

Yen Press Extravaganza (Part III)

This should be our last installment of this series... at least for a while!

Zombie-Loan: Vol. 8, by Peach-Pit

Zombie-Loan, an ongoing manga from the female writing/artistic duo Peach-Pit, offers a blend of both shojo (girls' manga) and shounen (boys' manga) clichés. There's a love triangle featuring a klutzy schoolgirl torn between a Type A perfectionist and a messy-haired delinquent... but there are zombies, guns, and the occasional scythe-fight, too.

The heroine of Zombie-Loan is Michiru Kita, a soft-spoken, biddable girl with a tragic past and a mysterious ability: she sees a black ring around the necks of people who are about to die. When she notices rings around the necks of two of her most popular classmates, she rushes out to warn them of their impending doom, but discovers that she is way too late. Both boys actually "died" in an accident six months earlier, and their current existence is the result of a supernatural bargain—in exchange for their lives, they hunt and exterminate other zombies.

Zombie-Loan's biggest flaw is its artwork, which ranges from mediocre to outright bad. Backgrounds are nearly nonexistent, and we spent most of the fight scenes wondering who was fighting who. Still, the central premise is interesting, and over the course of the series the heroine has grown from being a spineless wimp to—well, a slightly less spineless wimp. (Hey, as shojo heroines go, this counts as serious character growth.) We won't be waiting for the next Zombie-Loan volume with bated breath, but we'll probably go back when the series is completed and read it from the beginning.

Black God: Vol. 8, by Dall-Young Lim and Sung-Woo Park

For a manga with way more than its fair share of scenes featuring a girl fighting in a nonexistent skirt, writer Dall-Young Lim and artist Sung-Woo Park's Black God is both more complex and more entertaining then it looks at first glance.

Black God's main character is a selfish, lazy young man named Keita Ibuki, who is enjoying a bowl of ramen at a roadside stand when a fight breaks out between a small girl and a massive, sword-wielding thug. Keita (showing a rare flash of concern for someone other than himself) steps in... but promptly passes out when his arm is severed. When he comes to, he discovers the girl he tried to help is actually a supernatural warrior called a Mototsumitama, and she saved his life by cutting off her own arm and switching it with his, allowing her otherworldly healing powers to work on both limbs. Unfortunately (for her, mostly), she needs to stick around until their arms are repaired, so Keita ends up with an unwanted new roommate who attracts trouble like a magnet.

Keita takes a lot(!) of warming up to, but Black God's heroine is charming, and its artwork is gorgeous—as long as you don't mind a lot of very realistically-drawn violence. Despite its supernatural underpinnings, Black God is essentially a fighting manga, and Park's style leaves very little to the imagination: these kicks and punches look like they hurt, and watching a tiny young woman being pummeled by dudes twice her size is tough to take... even if she's doing plenty of pummeling, too. We suggest that readers take this series' "Older Teen" warning seriously, but if you're into hardcore action scenes with a side of fantasy you could certainly do much worse.

[Review copies provided by publisher.]

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Diamonds, by Ted Michael

Fans of everything from Mean Girls to The A-List will recognize elements of Ted Michael's debut novel The Diamonds, but Michael's take on this overly-familiar material still feels smart, fun, and fresh.

At an exclusive private school in Long Island, a four-girl clique known as the Diamonds sits at the top of the social hierarchy—but when one of them is dumped by her boyfriend, they decide to start exercising their power even more openly. The Diamonds join the school's Mock Trial team, and invite the student body bring their grievances to court. Suddenly, everything from a cheating boyfriend to a gossiping BFF is grounds for a trial... with the Diamonds serving as judge, jury, and fashionably-dressed executioner.

The cover and opening chapters of Michael's novel suggest that this book is just another Gossip Girl rip-off, but Michael has actually written something considerably more interesting: The Diamonds touches on everything from abuse of power to the nature of friendship to girl-on-girl crime. The characters are surprisingly multifaceted, and the author doesn't fall back on name-dropping high-end brands in favor of actual character development. The novel's biggest flaw is its adult characters' easy acceptance of the Diamonds' antics—please, somebody's parents would so sue over that kind of behavior—but it still makes for an entertaining and unexpectedly thoughtful read.

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Watered down

I was reading Roger Sutton's always-delightful Horn Book Blog, and ran across a post on Cornelia Funke's upcoming novel Reckless. Sutton's post quotes the Reckless press release (which I have not read):

"This sweeping story, which will delight Funke’s legion of fans and garner her new ones, was inspired by Grimm’s Fairy Tales and developed with film-maker Lionel Wigram, executive producer of the Harry Potter films and producer/co-writer of the recent Sherlock Holmes blockbuster."

Sutton has an elegant, pointed comment to make, but I'm pretty much stuck on "GYAH!". I'm sorry, but if you're already retelling a classic story (I'm assuming that what the "inspired by" bit means) PLUS you're working with someone else--someone who will presumably be assisting you to shape your story into something Hollywood-friendly--how much creativity can possibly be left?

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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Truth in advertising

99% of the cover art for the upcoming Twilight graphic novel is unremarkable...

...but I am impressed by the way they made [what is presumably] Edward's hand ever-so-slightly blue. Way to play up the fact that he's a dead guy!

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For the disorganized Austen junkies among us...

If, like me, you missed the first episode of the newest adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma currently airing on PBS stations in the US, you can see the thing in full on the Masterpiece Classic site.

For what it's worth, my mother says the adaptation's "not as bad as [she] had thought it would be".

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Zombie TV

Huh: AMC has apparently green-lit a pilot for a television series based on Robert Kirkman's comic series The Walking Dead. I'm really hoping this gets picked up--I *love* zombie stuff, and think a high-quality TV take on an ongoing zombie battle would be awesome.

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I see so many Jane Austen continuations/adaptations/re-workings that they frequently start to blend together, but this one is gonna stick out in my memory:

You see, dear readers, Pride/Prejudice focuses on Elizabeth and Darcy's previous same-sex romances--Elizabeth's with Charlotte Lucas and Darcy's with Bingley. It's out today, and while I'm not sure the slashfic approach to Austen is going to resonate with all of Pride and Prejudice's many fans, props to Ms. Hendereen for her, er, unusual take on the subject.


Monday, January 25, 2010

I may not be a princess, but...

My concerns about costs remain valid, but I happened to run across Barbara Beery's Green Princess Cookbook the other day, and I have give her credit: the recipes in this book look crazy delicious.

In fact, I think the juvenile cover art really does this book a disservice, because I can think of plenty of teenagers (and, uh, fully-grown-up book critics) who would enjoy these eco-friendly treats.

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Friday, January 22, 2010

Dream Life, by Lauren Mechling

Dream Life is Lauren Mechling's follow-up to 2008's Dream Girl, and it's even more enjoyably far-fetched than its predecessor. Both novels feature improbably-named 10th grader Claire Voyante, whose vintage cameo necklace (a gift from her grandmother) allows her to catch glimpses of the future in her dreams. In Dream Life, Claire's mega-rich best friend invites her to join the Blue Moon Club, a secret group of high-society girls dedicated to doing anonymous good deeds for the city—everything from repairing a famous clock to fixing a cable on the Brooklyn Bridge. When a rival club tries to expose the Blue Moon's activities, Claire and her friends kick their Nancy Drew act into high gear, determined to protect themselves from people who'd like to link the club's philanthropy to acts of political and business corruption.

Despite having a lot in common with other “rich kids in New York” novels, including loads of name-brand clothing and elaborate party sequences, Dream Life is way more entertaining than most of the books in this booming sub-genre. The heroine wears her grandmother's crazy vintage couture, not the latest from Marc Jacobs, and her social and romantic travails are spiced up by the supernatural subplot. The biggest problem I had with Mechling's book was Claire's college-age love interest, who spends most of the book stringing her along with nonsensical e-mails. Happily, Claire seems a little irritated by him, too, which gives me hope that in some future installment she'll ditch him in favor of somebody who's less self-absorbed*. He isn't awful, by any means... but a heroine this cheerfully quirky deserves somebody worthy of her vintage Oscar de la Renta cardigans, cat-eye make-up, and propensity for prophetic dreaming.

*I vote for her comic-book-loving friend Ian. Go, Team Ian!

Review based on copy provided by publisher.

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Do they bind them in gold or what?

Ever since finishing Obernewtyn (our current Featured Book), I've been sulking over the discovery that author Isobelle Carmody's US, UK, and Canadian publishers chose to split her final two books in this series into four, meaning that readers in those countries have to pay twice as much. But I finally looked up the Australian price for the combined titles, and I officially take back my sulking: unless I'm screwing up my currency conversion, even a paperback version of her book The Stone Key costs more than $20 US dollars. Is that typical? Anybody reading this in Australia? And if so, how does anybody afford to buy books?

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Spinning Disney

We try to avoid reporting on rumors (particularly rumors from a site like AintitCoolNews, which gives us an instant headache whenever we visit it), but this one's pretty widespread: whispers abound that Tim Burton is planning a cinematic retelling of Disney's Sleeping Beauty from the wicked queen's point of view... which sounds kind of awesome, at least if he'd be willing to change Disney's ending. (I don't want to get all attached and then have my heroine get stabbed by some tool in a silly-looking cape who goes around kissing comatose girls.)

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Babymouse: Dragonslayer, by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm

The Babymouse series, written by author Jennifer L. Holm and illustrated by her brother, freelance graphic artist Matthew Holm, are cute, silly, and unabashedly pink, making them an enjoyable alternative to the majority of superhero-centric graphic novels for young readers.

In Babymouse: Dragonslayer, Babymouse receives a well-deserved F-minus on a math test. She's been spending math class daydreaming about her beloved fantasy novels, imagining herself as the heroine of everything from The Lord of the Rings to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Exasperated, her teacher signs her up for the school's mathlete club, where Babymouse meets--much to her surprise--a group of new friends who actually like thinking about things like cosines and prime numbers.

If you substitute insane social climbing for Babymouse's overactive imagination, the plot of Babymouse: Dragonslayer has an awful lot in common with the last half-hour of the Lindsay Lohan movie Mean Girls. And unlike Mean Girls, Dragonslayer lacks a clearly defined moral--unusual in a children's book. (Babymouse spends a lot of time flaking on her fellow Mathletes, too, but that's okay: she manages to win the Math Olympics regardless.) Still, it's impossible to dislike a book that features this many Wordcandy-approved literary references plus a nearly-mystical "Golden Slide Rule" trophy, so we're calling this one another win for the Holm siblings' sunny-tempered series.

Review based on copy provided by publisher.

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Congratulations to 'em both.

Whoa. I'd heard that Neil Gaiman was getting married again to musician Amanda Palmer, but I hadn't actually seen the happy couple. Now, thanks to GoFugYourself's Golden Globes coverage, I have. (Link semi-NSFW.)

She seems... cheery?


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Fallen, by Lauren Kate

As a merry band of book critics who spend a lot of time pondering young adult literature, we found it impossible to read Lauren Kate's novel Fallen without thinking about Stephenie Meyer's Twilight. Admittedly, Kate has written a better book, but there are some striking similarities between her work and Meyer's, and that has us worried about where this series is going.

When Luce Price's parents ship her off to to Savannah's Sword & Cross boarding school, her life changes completely. Sword & Cross is a reformatory school, and Luce is there because of her role in the mysterious burning death of a classmate—an accident that even Luce, the only witness, can't begin to understand. Her new school is miserably strict, but it does have two major things going for it: campus playboy Cam, and Daniel, the gorgeous boy who can't seem to leave Luce alone, even though he makes it clear that he'd prefer to avoid her.

Fallen has a great Southern-Gothic setting, a theology-tinged supernatural premise, and a heroine who isn't half as mopey as Bella Swan (even though she has a lot more to be mopey about). Unfortunately, the things it has in common with the Twilight books are the same things that make Meyer's series so irritating: a confusing mythology, and a supernatural love interest whose hot-and-cold attitude makes him seem less like a teenage dreamboat and more like a condescending, emotionally manipulative jerk. It is possible that both of these problems will be successfully addressed in future installments of this series, but our experience with Meyer's books has taught us that it is always best to be cautious. Sure, we enjoyed reading Fallen... but who knows what betrayals—ahem, supernatural baby plotlines, "imprinting", etc.—Kate might have in store?

Review based on copy provided by publisher.

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Alice blue

Hmm. As random merchandising tie-ins go, O.P.I.'s Alice In Wonderland-themed nail polish really isn't too bad:

I am way too cheap to spend $8.50 for a bottle of nail polish, so I'm going to hope that Meg buys some and lets me borrow it. (I like the blue and purple, Meg. I already have the sparkly red colors, more or less. Just so you know.)

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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Awesomeness on sale

Powell's Books in Oregon is currently offering several of Penguin's Deluxe Classic Editions at 30% off. I'm not sure if it's just the crappy January weather making all of my old books look sad and washed-out, but these deliciously lurid editions seem to speak to my very soul (even more so than they usually do). I just want to curl up somewhere in front of a fire and read one of 'em, drinking hot chocolate out of a mug the size of a bucket:

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The Return

I got an e-mail last week informing me that Scholastic is planning to re-launch Ann M. Martin's Babysitters Club series with new covers and an all-new novel (a prequel) called The Summer Before.

Frankly, now that eighties fashions have been back in style for a few years, the old cover doesn't look so dated, does it? I mean, the clothes are still super-ugly, sure, but I bet you could buy a convincing facsimile of both that jumpsuit and the leggings-and-sweater combo at Urban Outfitters right now.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Knight of Pleasure, by Margaret Mallory

One of the main reasons Nathan, Megan and I started Wordcandy was our desire to give serious (okay, semi-serious) literary consideration to genres of fiction that do not ordinarily receive their fair share of critical attention—genres like romance. Unfortunately, a personal prejudice has prevented us from reviewing a huge portion of the romance novel market: I am very sorry, but I cannot stand historical romances set before 1780.

I know, I know. There are lots of good pre-Regency-era romance novels... but just think of the grossly inadequate dental care! The chamber pots! The semi-annual baths! It's all so off-putting—I mean, I realize that the human race survived these primitive times, so obviously there was some romance... but I'm really much happier not thinking about how it was managed. I've struggled through a few romances set in the 1400s, but they were all the kind of books that made a (probably historically inaccurate) point of mentioning their protagonists' unusual interest in bathing and tooth powder.

Anyway, all this means that I'm probably not the best person to be reviewing Margaret Mallory's novel Knight of Pleasure, but tough luck: people keep asking me for my opinion (she's a local author), so we'll all just have to make the best of it. Ready?

Knight of Pleasure is set in early 1400s Normandy. In an effort to avert the Siege of Rouen, Henry V decides to marry off an impoverished and widowed English noblewoman, Lady Isobel Hume, to a powerful French lord. Unfortunately, the political effectiveness of the match is hampered by the Frenchman's primary loyalty (which is to himself) and Lady Isobel's growing attraction to one of Henry's knights, the rakish Sir Stephen Carleton.

I wish I could set aside my early-historical prejudice here, but it's tough. Knight of Pleasure has historical information coming out of its eyebrows—some of it interesting (the political machinations surrounding Henry V's capture of Caen), some of it totally gross (the perceived sexual viability of girls as young as 11). If this is the kind of thing you enjoy, Mallory's book is obviously carefully researched, without too many words like “Ere” or “Forsooth!” sticking out like sore thumbs from her otherwise modern dialogue. The protagonists' initial attraction should have been introduced with more subtlety (they don't even meet until page 44, and yet they're groping each other on the floor of an empty storeroom by page 57), but their ongoing courtship does manage—eventually—to kick up some semi-plausible sparks...

...which would have been so much hotter if the author had made it perfectly clear that both parties had bathed first.

I'm sorry! I can't help it!

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In a word: Huh?

Forget all that Jay Leno/Conan nonsense, the real TV headscratcher of the moment is the idea of a reality show set in Forks, WA, the setting for Stephenie Meyer's enormously popular Twilight series.

And no, I'm not kidding.

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Homecoming, by Patricia Briggs and David Lawrence

I have never read Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson books, but if Homecoming—the first entry in a projected series of graphic novel tie-ins to the series—is any indication of her storytelling ability, I've missing out. Homecoming is colorful, solidly illustrated, and its beleaguered heroine, shape-shifting car mechanic Mercy Thompson, is tremendously appealing.

While the future installments in this series look like they'll be direct adaptations of the novels, Homecoming is a standalone entry. As the story opens, Mercy has just arrived in the Tri-Cities area in Washington State. She's hoping to land a teaching position (ideally one far, far away from her nagging mother). There are a few barriers standing in her way, however: one, she blows up at the interview committee, and two, she's a shape-shifter who seems to have made enemies of the local vampires, werewolves, and fae—all without even trying!

Homecoming's biggest problem is its artwork. Francis Tsai and Amelia Woo's panels are gorgeously painted and nicely laid out, but the character designs periodically shift between two very different styles. It's always clear who the characters are meant to be, but the unexplained changes distract from the flow of the story. Still, this minor irritant doesn't seriously detract from the book's charm, most of which comes from its mouthy, stubborn heroine, whose remarkable ability to get herself out of trouble can barely keep up with her unfortunate tendency to stumble into it. I'm really looking forward to the next book, and have every intention of checking out the printed novels while I wait.

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The k-drama rides again!

Ohohoho, dear readers. Exciting news: According to Dramabeans, the Korean drama PTB have cast Lee Min-ho (of the way-more-popular-than-it-deserved-to-be drama Boys Before Flowers) in the upcoming drama Personal Taste, which is apparently based on the popular novel of the same name about a straight dude who pretends to be gay in order to live with the female lead. If you cast your minds waaaay back, this is the same project that was originally rumored to star the two main actors from the slightly-more-popular-than-it-deserved-to-be drama Goong. I think I would have preferred the original pairing, but my heart wasn't set on it: either way, this sounds like the perfect set-up for the K-drama medium*, and I'm all a-flutter at the thought.

*Cute, funny, and they'll obviously have to hold off on any overt sexuality 'til the very end (lest the heroine catch on). Seriously, this sounds like it was made to be a K-drama.

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Monday, January 11, 2010

IKEA looks to Japan

According to Publishers Weekly's The Beat, home-furnishings superstore IKEA will soon be offering a line of manga-themed textiles designed by a Swedish artist named Åsa Ekström. The images will feature manga-esque images of both Swedish stuff (folk costumes, etc.) and Japanese stuff (think Yakuza tattoos and Godzilla).

Yeah... not sold on this idea. It's cute, but if you're going for a manga-inspired look, it's pretty easy to find something cooler than IKEA's generic take on the subject. I'd start by checking, which offers a variety of Japanese-themed goods ranging from this to this.

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Maybe they'll hire a better team this time...?

Ugh! After all that complaining we did about Marvel's Pride and Prejudice comic, now we're gonna have to suffer through a Sense and Sensibility one, too?

Thankfully (for me), that's my least favorite Austen novel, so I won't be as emotionally invested this time....

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Friday, January 08, 2010

Yen Press Extravaganza (Part II)

So here's part two of our mini-review bonanza! By and large, we've been very impressed by the quality of these series—we don't mean to make them sound like vultures, but Yen Press has been cherry-picking a lot of their titles from the wreckage of several now-defunct publishers, and that strategy seems to be working out remarkably well. We probably won't keep up with all of these stories, but most of 'em are seriously fun:

Angel Diary: Vol. 10, by Kara and Lee YunHee

We *love* Angel Diary. If you can get past its slightly cracked-out premise—the heroine is a cross-dressing Princess of Heaven who hides out in a Korean high school in order to escape an arranged marriage with the King of Hell (who, by the way, is hiding out there too, secretly knows who she is, and hits on her like it's his job)—it is absolutely freaking adorable.

There are only 3 volumes still to go in Angel Diary (the last one comes out next December), so if you're one of those people who don't like to start a series until the end is in sight—and, dude, we sympathize—now is a great time to check out this oddball romantic comedy.

You're So Cool: Vol. 5, by YoungHee Lee

When klutzy, simple-minded You’re So Cool heroine Nan Woo confesses her love to her classmate Seung Ha, she has no hope of being accepted—after all, Seung Ha is the best-looking and most popular boy in her class. But unfortunately for Nan Woo, Seung Ha has a darker side to him, and he's not above using Nan Woo's dim-witted affection to cover it up.

Experienced manga/manhwa readers are unlikely to find anything too shocking about You’re So Cool, but less well-read fans might want to start with something a little more conventional. Not only does this series feature a “would be seriously disturbing in real life” relationship between its hero and heroine, it includes several additional manhwa clichés that might shock a newbie reader. It’s not that YoungHee Lee’s series isn’t entertaining (it is), but it’s also something of an acquired taste.

Jack Frost: Vol. 2, by JinHo Ko

If you're looking for a top-notch example of manga/manhwa's ability to combine violence, humor, and a surprisingly deep exploration of the human condition... we suggest reading Yūsei Matsui's Majin Tantei Nōgami Neuro. But if you're just looking for a bunch of over-the-top fight scenes featuring an inordinate number of large-breasted women and an intriguing horror premise, you could probably do worse than Jin-Ho Ko's Jack Frost. While the first volume in this series was heavy on gore and light on plot, the second volume actually begins to develop the story in slightly greater depth.

(...but don't worry, slice'n'dice fans: there's still plenty of gore.)

The Antique Gift Shop: Vol. 9, by Lee Eun

We were predisposed to like The Antique Gift Shop because the description of it reminded us of two of our all-time favorite manhwa: our beloved Banhonsa and I Wish. Like those titles, this is a series of fable-and-fairytale-inspired episodes loosely connected by an overarching storyline about a young woman named Bun-Nyuh, whose grandmother forces her to take over her family's antique shop. When Bun-Nyuh realizes that most of the antiques for sale possess strange powers, she becomes even more determined to leave the shop... but something far more powerful than her grandmother is determined to keep her there.

The earlier volumes in this series appear to be more self-contained, but by this point the series has shifted its primary focus to Bun-Nyuh and her mysterious shop assistant, Mr. Yang. While volume 9 was obviously not the ideal place to be starting a 10-volume-long series, we were sufficiently interested in this story's combination of horror, folklore and romance to want to both finish the series and hunt down the previous volumes—no small compliment, considering each book costs $10.99.

Crimson Shell: Vol. 1, by Jun Mochizuki

Despite its whiplash-inducing emotional pace (seriously, this story turns from cutesy to grim on a dime), Crimson Shell works as a fun, quick introduction to Japanese sci-fi/fantasy. Mochizuki’s heroine is a childlike young woman named Claudia, the only non-evil survivor of a mad scientist’s genetic mutilation. The “rose seed” planted inside Claudia’s body grants her special powers—unlike the seeds planted inside her fellow mutants, which turned them into crazed killing machines with the power to make their victims into zombies.

While the ending of this series felt rushed and it's probably best not to think about most of its plot points too hard, Mochizuki should be commended for her ability to create appealing and easily distinguishable characters (unlike, say, the creator of the visually-similar manga The Gentlemen’s Alliance) and her scattering of enjoyable tributes to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

Higurashi—When They Cry: Vol. 1, by Ryukishi07 and Jiro Suzuki

Higurashi—When They Cry is based on an enormously popular series of murder-mystery video games produced by a group of amateur Japanese software developers. When the series' hero, Keiichi Maebara, moves to the tiny rural town of Hinamizawa he promptly makes a bevy of cute, irrepressible female friends. Unfortunately, his relationships with the girls are threatened when he discovers that this idyllic-looking village is hiding a terrifying secret: every year for the past four years, people have died during a local festival.

Higurashi is divided into four “question arcs” and four “answer arcs”. This hyper-stylized approach means that when terrible, gristly events happen (as they often do) the readers view them more than once. This can be extremely disconcerting, particularly when taken in the context of the overly cutesy artwork. We strongly encourage people to respect that “Older Teen” rating—unlike titles like Jack Frost, the hardcore creepiness of this series is not immediately apparent, but that doesn't mean it isn't really freaky. (Seriously. Picture a blend of Groundhog Day and The Lottery.)

[Review copies provided by Yen Press.]

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Thursday, January 07, 2010

Yen Press Extravaganza (Part I)

A few weeks ago, we found a large box from Yen Press waiting on our doorstep. We were super-excited—Yen Press is the manga/manhwa publishing group that has taken over the English publication of several of our favorite titles, including Goong, Angel Diary, and (last but definitely not least) Yotsuba&!. Unfortunately, we were only familiar with a few of the 11 titles they had chosen to send us, and some of the volumes were from late in their respective series, so reviewing these stories has taken an insane amount of time. But now, at long last, we're all caught up, so here's part one of our Yen Press mini-marathon:

Very! Very! Sweet: Vol. 5, by JiSang Shin and Geo

Very! Very! Sweet is the story of a rich and spoiled 15-year-old boy named Tsuyoshi, whose domineering grandfather ships him off to Korea to connect with his family's Korean heritage—or die trying. Naturally, Tsuyoshi moves in next door to an exuberant Korean girl named Be-Ri, whose strict family life and far more modest circumstances result in an over-the-top culture clash.

Most of the humor in Very! Very! Sweet comes from the differences between Japanese and Korean culture... which means you need to know something about Japanese and Korean cultures to catch the jokes. Also, the hero communicates with the heroine in broken Korean, which—no matter how cute it's supposed to be—distracts from the story's more dramatic moments. These are minor quibbles, however, and don't seriously detract from this series' ability to pull the conventional "snotty rich boy + poor-but-lively girl" formula in some fun new directions.

Goong: Vol. 7, by Park So-Hee

And speaking of rich, snotty boys and poor, lively girls... Park So-Hee's Goong is a twisted take on the Cinderella story, with a hopelessly goofy heroine (Chae-Gyung) who is coerced into marriage with Crown Prince Shin, the cold-hearted heir to the Korean monarchy. While the romantic aspects of this story (not to mention its hugely popular K-drama adaptation) have attracted zillions of starry-eyed readers, it also offers a fascinating alternate-universe version of a unified Korea led by a modern monarchy.

Cat Paradise: Vol. 2, by Yuji Iwahara

When new student Yumi Hayakawa enters Matabi Academy, she discovers that the school's cat-friendly dormitories actually serve an otherworldly purpose—defending the world from the terrifying demon sealed beneath the school's library. Yumi's favorite hobby to date has been knitting frilly dresses for her beloved (male) cat Kansuke, so she's even more shocked to find that they, too, are destined to be become part of the school's student-council-member-plus-cat fighting force.

Cat Paradise is a surprisingly appealing take on a totally ridiculous premise. Nearly everything about it is better than it seems at first glance—the artwork more nuanced, the characters more appealing, the bad guys creepier, the storyline funnier and more exciting. We wouldn't recommend this series to a total manga newbie (the premise is just too far out there), but fans of Rumiko Takahashi should love it.

Sarasah: Vol. 2, by Ryu Ryang

It's a good thing that the first volume of Ryu Ryang's manhwa Sarasah is so pretty, because it takes a lot of lovely pictures to make up for her heroine's personality. The story centers around a Korean girl named Ji-Hae, whose crush on her handsome classmate Seung-Hyu is more than a little crazy. When Seung-Hyu literally pushes her away, Ji-Hae falls down a flight of stairs and dies. However, the spirits of the afterlife take pity on her, and send her back in time to mend her relationship with Seung-Hyu in one of her past lives.

By the second volume, however, things start looking up: Ji-Hae's crazy stalker solo act turns into a love triangle (or at least the beginning of one), which means that the storyline is no longer a painful distraction from the gorgeousness of the artwork. Her affections still haven't quite made it across the line from “obsessive” to “adorably persistent”, but here's hoping. We're looking forward to reading the future books in this series—particularly if the author continues to tone down Ji-Hae's antics.

Sugarholic: Vol. 2, by Gong GooGoo

The artwork in Gong GooGoo's Sugarholic manhwa takes a lot of getting used to, particularly for readers more familiar with Japanese manga. (The first glimpse we catch of the series' hero is particularly startling: think "female televangelist as drawn by the people who made Aeon Flux".) Still, the storyline is fun, if predictable: a klutzy, clueless country girl moves to Seoul, meets an irritable young millionaire, and finds herself torn between said millionaire and the long-lost rock star she tortured as a child. We were more than a little uncomfortable with the amount of violence in this story—both of the male characters seem awfully trigger-happy when it comes to smacking people around—but the non-doormat heroine goes a long way towards making up for their shortcomings.

Part Two comes tomorrow—wish us luck!

[Review copies provided by Yen Press.]

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Wednesday, January 06, 2010

The Glass Room, by Simon Mawer

It is easy to see why Simon Mawer's The Glass Room was shortlisted for 2009's Man Booker Prize: the book is gorgeously written, historically significant, and 99% of it is a total downer. Mawer's novel opens in the late 1920s, when a pair of wealthy Czech newlyweds (a Jewish car manufacturer and his gentile wife) decide to build an ultra-modern house—a stunning, glass-walled mansion that becomes a physical embodiment of their hopes for the future. Before long, however, their enviable life begins to disintegrate. Both partners start looking for affection outside of their marriage, and things take an even darker turn as the horrors of World War II grow closer. As the years go by, the house passes from one owner to the next, slipping from Czech to Nazi to Soviet possession, until the novel ends (and on a surprisingly hopeful note!) with it once again in Czech hands.

As far as I can tell, Mr. Mawer is not Czech. I, however, am, and I can vouch for the fact that he got at least one thing totally right: Czech angst really can be this self-consciously arty. I am less competent to judge the historical accuracy of his storyline, but he seems to have borrowed heavily from the real-life account of Tugendhat Villa in Brno, a modernist home built between 1928 and 1930 for a Jewish couple that lost control of the house when they fled Czechoslovakia in 1938. Unfortunately, other elements of The Glass Room are less plausible—the book is filled with meetings and conversations that, no matter how richly dramatic they might be, seriously strain credulity.

But if you don't object to a lot of artistic suffering and a central metaphor (the glass house) that smacks a little too much of English Literature 301, there is much here to admire: Mawer's sophisticated prose is evocative; his characters lifelike—sometimes painfully so. And, it must be noted, The Glass Room was actually one of the less depressing Booker Prize options last year. (The winning novel was a fictionalized account of the life of Thomas Cromwell, who—fun fact!—ended up with his boiled head stuck on a spike atop London Bridge. No doubt a delightful read.) It might not be a rollicking good time, but Mawer's elegantly gloomy family-saga-slash-historical-epic has a lot to offer, even to those of us who generally prefer our fiction to come with a happily-ever-after guarantee.

[Review copy provided by publicity firm.]


Michael Pollan's costly advice

Okay, I like Michael Pollan, and I've heard good things about Food Rules, his "pocket compendium of food wisdom". But, dude: it costs eleven dollars. For a collection of sixty-four paragraphs.

For that kind of word-to-money ratio I frankly think Pollan should move into my house and take over the (thankless) task of slapping my hands away whenever I reach for a cookie instead of an organic kumquat.

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Tuesday, January 05, 2010

High Anxiety, by Charlotte Hughes

Charlotte Hughes' High Anxiety is her third book to feature accident-prone psychologist Kate Holly (following What Looks Like Crazy and Nutcase). At this point in the series, Kate's life is about as organized as it's likely to get—her practice is steady, her office issues have been resolved, and her on-again/off-again relationship with her firefighter ex-husband has been firmly set to "on". Unfortunately, a night spent filling in for a colleague's anger management group sends everything down the tubes: when a crotchety old lady pulls out a gun, Kate's all-too-brief vacation from mayhem is over.

High Anxiety does a lot of things very well. While she's not above mining their hijinks for humor, Hughes describes Kate's whacked-out clients with surprising sensitivity, and Kate's relationships with her friends and family (particularly her mother) are handled with intelligence and affection. Unfortunately, things on the romantic front continue to drag. Kate's ex might be the love of her life, but their problems are serious, and he spends most of this book fighting a fire in another state. Their troubled relationship could make for a compelling dramatic storyline, but Hughes would be well advised to either move things forward or end 'em fast, because it's tough to remain emotionally invested in an absentee love interest.

Despite kicking off with a scene featuring Kate accidentally shooting a picture of Jesus, High Anxiety is the least self-consciously kooky entry in this series, and it's a better book for it. Kate isn't the kind of character who can handle an endless stream of Stephanie Plum-style disasters, and, as she grows from book to book, it's a pleasure to see her begin to address her problems before they blow up in her face. Her love life might be spinning its wheels, but the rest of her world is moving forward at an briskly entertaining pace.

[Review copy provided by author publicist.]

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Signs of life

So, there's some news on the Dune movie adaptation front: according to Variety, Paramount Pictures has asked Pierre Morel to direct. Morel will replace Peter Berg, who exited in favor of directing Battleship (yes, a movie version of the boardgame).

I'm trying to get excited about this, as Morel is apparently a hardcore fan of the book, but... but... but the first dude left in favor of a board game adaptation!!! *Not* a good sign.

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Monday, January 04, 2010

Comic Book Design, by Gary Spencer Millidge

Gary Spencer Millidge's Comic Book Design offers readers a colorful and informative tour of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into the creation and promotion of comic books. He delves into considerations both large (storyline concepts, character design) and small (word balloons, grid structure, sound effects), leaving comic junkies with a far more in-depth appreciation of their favorite medium.

While sections of Millidge's book feel more like an art-school textbook than something written for the layman, the gorgeous artwork, easy-to-understand text, and artist profiles featured in Comic Book Design are sure to interest anyone with a general interest in comic books as an art form. For example, we here at Wordcandy already spent a tremendous amount of time brooding over cover art, but—thanks to Mr. Millidge's informative chapter on covers and publication design—we will now be adding title mastheads, company logos, and spine design to our list of things to complain about. (Thanks, Gary!)

A word of warning, however: Millidge's obvious admiration for the artists featured in his book is infectious, and readers may find themselves wanting to check out more of the featured work than their finances will allow. (His discussion of the background art in Cerebus left us with a strong desire to pick up one of Dave Sim's graphic novels, even though they cost thirty dollars and we've been avoiding reading them since high school.) So do what you have to do—freeze your credit cards, harden your heart, whatever—but don't blow your budget on every graphic novel he recommends, no matter how glorious the splash pages or eye-catching the color palettes.

Review based on unsolicited submission by publisher.

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Cinderella's Sister

If you're still unfamiliar with K-dramas, A) you are seriously missing out, and B) you might want to start with Cinderella's Sister, an upcoming 20-episode series scheduled to begin in March. According to Dramabeans, the cast for this adaptation/retelling of the classic fairytale is going to include Tamra the Island actress Seo Woo (an up-and-coming star) and Moon Geun-young (already an A-lister in Korea, best known here in the US for her role in the horror film A Tale of Two Sisters). I have really high hopes for this drama--frankly, I don't think Moon would sign up for something at this point in her career without some amazing buzz behind it, and Seo Woo can probably pick and choose her drama projects, too.

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